Craig Berube

Berube helped Blues find identity after early-season struggle

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BOSTON — During his press conference following the firing of Mike Yeo, St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong stated that he was ready to do an off-season search for a new head coach, and that that search would take him far and wide. He would explore all levels of hockey — college, junior, the AHL, Europe — to find a successor and get the franchise back on track.

At that same press conference, interim head coach Craig Berube said he saw a team that needed a boost of confidence. After all, he’d been an associate coach for Yeo and been on the bench for the first month and a half of the 2018-19 NHL season, a start that saw the Blues fall down the Western Conference standings and into a hole seemingly too vast to dig out from.

On the 205th night since that November press conference, the Blues celebrated as Stanley Cup champions for the first time in franchise history. A team that was in need of a kick received it when Berube took over. The players bought into his message at a time when they needed to the most.

“He has conviction when he speaks,” said NBC’s Brian Boucher about Berube, his former NHL teammate and head coach. “If he says something, he’s thought about it and when he believes in something, you believe him.”

[RELATED: Blues win first Stanley Cup]

When Armstrong decided to make the coaching change he turned to Berube because of his experience. Of the remaining assistants, he had the most experience as an NHL head coach and the GM was confident he could keep the ship steady until a full-time replacement could be found.

“He answered the bell,” said Armstrong.

Berube kept the Blues afloat and slowly started to make progress with his players, with the results showing on the ice. He took the bond that he created as an associate coach and kept it strong when he took over for Yeo. His message resonated with his players at a time when they were feeling lost, and the losses piling up. 

“It was really tough at the start,” said Ryan O'Reilly, who was named winner of the 2019 Conn Smythe Trophy. “It was tough. We were all questioning each other and frustrated. We kept working, though. We had great leadership at all sorts of different times [stressing] to keep working and eventually things started to click. Chief got us to just get out there and play hard, be hard on every puck and help us find our identity.”

The Blues’ biggest strength in Berube’s eyes? They trusted the guy next to them on the bench — a trait that he had to instill into his group.

“They put the team first,” said Berube, who’s now the seventh coach to win the Stanley Cup after taking over midseason. “That’s been a message for quite sometime. They’ve done a real good job of that, the players. They believe in it. Once they got that message they started playing mid-December, we started to really pull it together.”

Now the long journey is complete and the Blues are Stanley Cup champions. Berube is still technically the team’s “interim” head coach, but that title will be getting an upgrade very soon.

MORE BLUES STANLEY CUP COVERAGE:
Video: Blues hoist Stanley Cup
Blues fan Laila Anderson gets moment with Stanley Cup
Ryan O’Reilly wins Conn Smythe Trophy
Blues latest team erased from Stanley Cup drought list

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs’ most controversial calls

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The Boston Bruins and their fans were upset about officials not calling a penalty on Tyler Bozak before the Blues’ eventual game-winner in Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, but if misery loves company, than they shouldn’t feel alone.

In fact, the Bruins’ opponents in St. Louis had already been on both sides of some of the most pivotal, polarizing calls of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs before Game 5.

Let’s run down some of the biggest controversies of this postseason, starting with Thursday’s non-call. As a note: not every call was necessarily wrong, and this isn’t a comprehensive list, so feel free to air officiating grievances (or grievances about officiating grievances) in the comments.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Missed trip

Should it be considered a trip, a slew-foot, or no penalty at all? Well, as you can see in the video above this post’s headline, it sure seemed like Tyler Bozak thought he was going to the penalty box – just ask Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy – for taking down Noel Acciari.

At that point, the Blues were up 1-0, but moments after that non-call, Ryan O'Reilly found David Perron for what would eventually stand as the game-winning goal.

If the call was made, it would have still been 1-0 rather than 2-0 for the Blues, and the Bruins would have headed to the power play. It’s also worth noting that a) the Bruins seemed discombobulated by that turn of events and b) Acciari was taken out of the play, effectively making it a 5-on-4 situation, so that turn of events also heightened the Blues’ chances of scoring that goal.

The hand pass

It doesn’t get much more pivotal than a blown call in overtime, at least if that call leads to a deciding goal.

Consider this maybe the high point of the trilogy of moments that went the Sharks’ way during their playoff run, as Timo Meier got away with a hand pass before Erik Karlsson scored the OT game-winner in Game 3 of the 2019 Western Conference Final against the Blues.

The Blues took the high road following that controversy, and eventually won their series against the Sharks, while top officials noted that the play was not reviewable. Could that be one of those moments that changes the goal review process in 2019-20? We shall see.

Blues score with Bishop down

File this one under the tougher judgment calls.

It all happened pretty quickly, as Ben Bishop went down after a hard shot to the collarbone area from Colton Parayko. Moments later – but arguably with more than enough time for officials to blow the play dead if they chose to – Jaden Schwartz scored a big goal that helped St. Louis force a Game 7 against the Dallas Stars in what would turn out to be an extremely close Round 2 series.

The Gabriel Landeskog incident

It seemed like the Colorado Avalanche tied Game 7 of their Round 2 series against the Sharks, until they didn’t.

Instead, the Sharks reversed Colin Wilson‘s would-be tying goal thanks to an offside review. To Landeskog’s credit, the Avalanche captain took the blame, rather than throwing officials under the bus.

Should that play have been offside? Was there even some room to look at it as too many men on the ice? It was a strange situation, either way, and another moment that worked out for San Jose, as the Sharks ultimately eliminated Colorado.

Major problem

The Golden Knights were up 3-0 against the Sharks in Game 7 of Round 1, and then Cody Eakin was whistled for a major penalty after his check (and a bump from Paul Stastny) led to a terrifying, bloody fall for Joe Pavelski.

The Sharks stunningly scored four goals during that five-minute major, and while Vegas showed scrappiness in sending that Game 7 to overtime, San Jose eventually prevailed. It’s true that the Golden Knights’ penalty kill was preposterously porous during that four-goal barrage, but Vegas was fuming after the loss, with Jonathan Marchessault comparing the perceived officiating mistake to the infamous blown pass interference call that went against the New Orleans Saints.

Most would agree that Eakin deserved to be penalized, while the debate revolves around it being a major and game misconduct. The human element of the situation cannot be ignored, as officials saw a scary scene where Pavelski was bleeding, and it happened in front of a San Jose crowd.

This is another play that might have a ripple effect. Will the NHL decide to make major penalties (or discussions of major penalties) subject to video review?

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It’s crucial to mention that it must be difficult to officiate any sport, let alone one as fast-paced as hockey. For every call you miss or make, there’s someone behind the scenes complaining about too many or too few calls. After all, Bruce Cassidy believes that Craig Berube’s complaints about officials changed the “narrative” of the Stanley Cup Final.

Getting these calls correct, all the time, is a prime example of “Easier said than done.”

Still, for fans and teams who feel slighted, these moments will reverberate, at least if their runs don’t end with a Stanley Cup victory.

Are there any moments that stand out to you, beyond the five splashy ones above? If you want to dig up old gripes about Wayne Gretzky high-sticking Doug Gilmour, have at it. Replaying those major, split-second decisions is half the fun/agony of being a hockey fan, right?

Game 6 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday (NBC; stream here).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Why the Blues get better late in every series

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If we have learned anything about the St. Louis Blues through the first three full rounds of the playoffs it’s that they may just now be reaching the point in the Stanley Cup Final where they really start to find their game.

The Blues enter Game 5 against the Boston Bruins on Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC; Live Stream) tied at two games apiece thanks to their big Game 4 win on Monday night. Thursday’s game is obviously a pivotal one because it’s going to bring one of these teams to within one win of a championship.

All postseason the Blues have excelled in this exact position and have consistently gotten stronger in every series they have played.

So far they are 6-1 in Games 5 through 7 of each series, with the only loss in those games being a 2-1 defeat in Game 5 to the Dallas Stars in a game where the Blues still carried most of the play.

It is not just that they have won almost all of these late series games, it is that they have legitimately played better. It is a near perfect confluence of process and results.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

For example, the table below shows the Blues’ 5-on-5 shot attempt (CF%), scoring chance (SC%), high-danger scoring chances (HDSC%) and goal differentials for Games 1-4 in each series versus their performance in Games 5-7 in each series.  There is obviously a pretty drastic difference in the two performances.

One argument for this could centered around the Blues’ style of play where they try to wear teams down over the course of a series. They do have some bigger forwards and a bigger roster and can play a grinding game with an aggressive forecheck.

“Heavy hockey” if you wanted to call it that.

“We just try to play a grinding style of hockey,” said center Brayden Schenn. “It’s not fancy. It’s not pretty. But when we’re chipping pucks and we’re forechecking and we have a good F3 and we’re back checking hard, and it allows the D to have good gaps. We feel it’s a pretty good recipe and hopefully we can keep that going and be effective.”

Team captain and top defender Alex Pietrangelo echoed that same sentiment.

“I think we can see it throughout games and throughout series,” he said. “It’s tough minutes to play against our forward lines when they’re playing the way they can. Not necessarily anything to look for, you can see the momentum we create by our line changes in the offensive zone, we’re just using all four lines. If I was a defenseman, that would be tough to defend against.”

There is always a common theme and talking point whenever a team with size goes far in the playoffs where the conventional wisdom is that they wear teams down. But this is the NHL, it is still at its core a contact and collision sport where every game is going to have its share of physical play and hits. Everyone gets worn down to a degree the deeper they go in a series and the playoffs. Is an extra 10-15 hits per game spread out throughout the roster really going to speed that up? The argument against the mindset is that some of the most successful teams of the salary cap era (Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, the 2006-2009 Detroit Red Wings, and even the Tampa Bay Lightning team that went to three of the past five Eastern Conference Finals) did it with rosters that weren’t big or overly physical (especially at forward). Old school hockey folks love to romanticize the physical aspect of the game and the blood and guts reputation of playoff hockey. But the most consistently successful teams of this era didn’t really fit that mold. At all.

There is also this: simply writing it off as the Blues winning a battle of attrition every series and advancing because they are bigger and stronger and overpowering teams does a disservice to their coaching staff and the talent they have on their roster, all of which are excellent. Especially when trying to overpower the Bruins physically may have gotten them into some trouble earlier in the series when it came to their discipline.

From the moment Craig Berube took over behind the bench the team’s style changed. It used a more aggressive forecheck, they opened up more offensively, they immediately become better defensively in all phases.

The thing about playoff hockey is that coaching can tend to make more of a difference that it sometimes does in the regular season as teams spend more time game-planning for opponents and trying to find and exploit their weaknesses.

There is only so much advance game-planning you can do for one game out of 82 in the regular season when you usually only have 24-48 hours to prepare for a team after playing a completely different team with a completely different style. You are obviously doing some prep work, but not anywhere near as in-depth or detailed as you do in the playoffs.

In a best-of-seven series where you play the same team, with the same personnel, with the same playing style every night you are going to be more in tune with what they are trying to do and better able to find what they can do. And perhaps even more importantly, what they can’t do.

“I think we finally realize that we have to get to our game,” said forward Patrick Maroon. “When we get to our game, we’re a good hockey team. It takes us some time, I guess. Figure out how they play, how we need to play, what we need to do. How we can focus on it every shift, every night.”

“Yeah, I think it’s pretty common,” said Schenn when asked if there is a feeling out process the team has gone through early in each series.

“You kinda see what the team is gonna give you, how they’re gonna play, what adjustments they’re gonna make. I’m sure Boston’s gonna make some adjustments as well and so are we.”

The Blues are one of the bigger teams in the NHL and they do play what can probably be described as a “grinding” style. Even their biggest superstar, Vladimir Tarasenko, is such a force with the puck because of his strength and how difficult he is to knock over. They will play physical and they will hit your defense on the forecheck. But they also have a lot of talent throughout their roster and a coaching staff that has consistently done a great job adjusting all season.

Without the latter points, none of the former would matter or be much of a factor.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final airs Thursday on NBC at 8 p.m. ET (stream here).

MORE BLUES-BRUINS GAME 5:
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Report: Chara has broken jaw
Blues vs. Bruins: Three keys to Game 5
The Wraparound: Bruins need more, especially from second line
Looking at Bruins’ potential defensive options

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

What Blues miss with Sundqvist suspended for Game 3

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With Matt Grzelcyk injured, the Boston Bruins lose a valuable puck-mover. The St. Louis Blues, meanwhile, will miss the guy who injured Grzelcyk, as Oskar Sundqvist was suspended for Game 3 (8 p.m. ET on Saturday on NBCSN; stream here) of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

Like with Grzelcyk, you get a better idea of how much Sundqvist’s absence stings when you dig deeper.

While Blues coach Craig Berube is trying to keep things close to the vest heading into Game 3, Zach Sanford skated in Sundqvist’s spot alongside Alexander Steen and Ivan Barbashev on Friday, hinting at that being the possible trio. Berube spoke about what Sundqvist brings to the table, via the Blues website:

“You miss a lot (losing Sundqvist),” Berube said. “He’s a good player, does a lot of good things for us on both sides of the puck. Good penalty killer, plays center, wing, great defensively and has produced for us in the playoffs, too.”

[MORE: Berube instilled confidence in Blues when they needed it the most.]

Berube’s assessment looks pretty accurate, whether you dive deep or keep things simple.

Sundqvist’s averaged 15:55 TOI per game during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the sixth-highest average among Blues forwards. Sundqvist’s near-16 minutes of nightly ice time ranks comfortably ahead of Tyler Bozak (14:26) and Robert Thomas (13:19), which serves as a nod to Sundqvist’s versatility.

It’s pretty clear that Sundqvist has earned the trust of the Blues’ coaching staff, as his ice time really soared once the calendar year hit 2019. He’s been a steady penalty killer for St. Louis, logging 1:29 PK time per game, the third-highest total among Blues forwards (though right there with Barbashev’s 1:25 average).

Sundqvist distinguishes himself for more-than-breaking-even in deeper stats at Natural Stat Trick, even though he’s frequently been deployed in less glamorous situations. The sexiest fact might be that he’s been on the ice for 11 goals for versus just five against at even-strength so far during the postseason, but there are other promising numbers.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

And, even the simplest stats and considerations are positive. Sundqvist has four goals and five assists for nine points in 21 postseason games so far, which is impressive when you consider his so-so opportunities to score, and it’s not as though he’s enjoying absurd puck luck with just a 9.8 shooting percentage.

Sundqvist isn’t going to put up numbers that rival Alex Ovechkin like his teammate Vladimir Tarasenko, yet he’s a nice piece of a Blues team that enjoys a nice mix of top-end talent and depth. When you consider how deadly the Bruins’ power play can be, the PK might end up being the spot where Sundqvist is missed the most, although Sundqvist brings enough to the table that it’s open to debate.

Blues-Bruins Game 3 is Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET from Enterprise Center on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

More from the 2019 Stanley Cup Final

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Berube delivered confidence when Blues needed it the most

ST. LOUIS — Brian Boucher was able to experience the two sides of Craig Berube in professional hockey.

During his rookie season in 1999-00, the then-22-year-old Boucher was a teammate of Berube’s on the Philadelphia Flyers. At that time, Berube was in his 16th season and had nearly 800 NHL games under his belt. The veteran tough guy was well-liked and kept guys honest in the dressing room. More importantly, he wasn’t afraid to speak up, even on a team that featured a number of players who had plenty of career success like Mark Recchi, Eric Lindros, Rick Tocchet, Eric Desjardins, and John LeClair.

Berube’s personality was a hit with teammates because he could crack a joke one minute then tell it straight when a player or the team needed a kick. Those qualities he possessed 20 years ago clearly still remain today as he was one of the key factors in the St. Louis Blues’ turnaround this season.

Boucher could see those traits back then.

“100%. He could talk to the best player on the team the same way would talk to his linemate on the fourth line,” said Boucher, who’s been analyst with NBC Sports since 2015. “There was no separation to him. He treated everybody the same. I think everybody had a ton of respect for him just because of the role that he played on the team. One of the toughest guys I’ve ever played with in the NHL.”

Berube compiled 3,149 penalty minutes in his NHL career with 241 fights, per HockeyFights.com, helping make up that large number. So when he transitioned to an assistant coach role with the Flyers’ AHL affiliate in 2004-05, the players knew his resume and respected him for the way he played the game.

His approach in communicating with players was and remains a simple one: there are no games. Berube tells it like it is and in a black and white manner.

“You’re not confused when you speak with him,” said Boucher, “you know exactly what the message is. I think guys really appreciate that. Whether it’s at the NHL level or the AHL, they just want to know where they stand, what their role is going to be and how to execute it.”

Getty Image

When Blues general manager hung the still-remaining (for now) interim tag on Berube in November, the new head coach had an advantage compared to an outsider entering the situation. He knew the roster. He knew the skill level of the players, and his relationship with them was already good having been in the assistant coach role where you typically assume the “good cop” role. 

Berube had confidence in his team, something that he noticed the players were lacking as they sat with a 7-9-3 record. 

“It’s a good hockey team, got good players,” Berube said at the introductory press conference. “We’ve got to get moving in the right direction.”

It took time, but but his message eventually began to resonate.

Brayden Schenn has seen what Berube can do. In six of his last eight years in the NHL he’s had Berube as either a head coach or an assistant. The pair were with the Flyers in Berube’s two seasons there after he replaced Peter Laviolette early in the 2013-14 season.

Schenn saw Berube do in St. Louis what he was able to do in a short time in Philadelphia.

“Just got us to believe,” Schenn said. “Believe in one another, believe we’re a good hockey team. He took down the standing board in the room and worried about one game at a time, and that’s really all it was.”

When Berube was elevated, the Blues sat 30th in the NHL. The process of improvement took some time as St. Louis won only nine of their first 20 games under Berube, and we all know the climb up the mountain began after being dead last in the league on Jan. 3.

“Just don’t look back” is Berube’s mantra. Everyone knew how bad the team’s record was, but that was in the past. The Blues couldn’t change yesterday so they had to focus on changing tomorrow.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Things looked bleak for the Blues at the start of the new year. Had the tailspin continued into February, Armstrong’s comment after firing Mike Yeo about his patience with the core group being “at its thinnest point” could have led to major changes to the roster. But he held firm and began to see some light. Confidence was coming back and Jordan Binnington was soon on his way.

Four months later the Blues are playing for the Stanley Cup for the first time in 49 years.

“It is about the players,” said Berube. “They’re the ones that go out and do the job and play. They’ve really bought into what we want from them. I think when we took over, we wanted a team-first mentality. We wanted to put the team first. We wanted to get these guys playing for each other on a nightly basis. That was the biggest turnaround for this hockey team.”

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Tyler Bozak appreciates Berube’s direct approach. He also enjoys the coach’s style in dealing with players.

“He’s almost a teammate at times out there,” he said. “Then he’s also very demanding at the same time. It’s a pretty cool dynamic.”

When Berube speaks, players and teammates listen. Boucher remembers that well.

“When he has to get a message across, he gets a message across,” he said. “It doesn’t take forever to get it across. He’s direct, to the point. You understand where he’s coming from. … He hasn’t lost that as a coach. He’s not afraid and go tease a guy or make fun of a guy — not in a way that would embarrass a player, but the kind that would bring a group together. There’s a real skill to that and you have to have the respect of guys to do that.”

Berube will shed the “interim” part from his title this summer. Armstrong’s stated plan back in November that he was going to cast a wide net in a coaching search has been whittled down to a list of one. Along with consistent goaltending, all the Blues needed was some confidence and the right messenger.

“He has conviction when he speaks,” said Boucher. “If he says something, he’s thought about it and when he believes in something, you believe him.”

Blues-Bruins Game 3 is Saturday night at 8 p.m. ET from Enterprise Center on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.